Boycotts :: Anti- Or Pro-Gay, How Effective Are They Really?
In the 1970s, the Castro District in San Francisco was one of the most important and active centers of the then-nascent gay rights movement. At the forefront of this movement was a human tornado named Harvey Milk, a fearless and flamboyant gay activist who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.
Milk was an idealist but very much a pragmatist who understood that Americans deal with an issue when it affects their pocketbook. He also understood better than anyone else that in order to make any real social change he would have to hit the corporate wallet, and hit it hard.
He led efforts to boycott Coors Brewing Company over anti-gay hiring policies that included giving prospective employees a lie detector test to determine their sexuality. Coors, which was once synonymous with ultra-right-wing causes espoused by the Coors family, has morphed into one of the most progressive and gay-friendly breweries. Around the same time, gay men and bars made a very public display of dumping Florida orange juice because the growers’ spokesperson was Anita Bryant, the singer who single-handedly launched the Christian-based anti-gay backlash that is still very, very much with us.
Today, it seems a day can’t go by without another pro- or anti-gay rights group launching a boycott. Some of them are large companies (Apple, for not allowing the anti-gay "Manhattan Manifesto" app on the iPhone, on their side; Target, on ours) or small (Chick-fil-A, a local fast-food chain that supports anti-gay marriage groups; local California restaurants for supporting Prop. 8 or even hiring employees who gave to Prop. 8 source groups).
Some groups, such as the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s tiny American Family Association, seem to exist for the sole purpose of announcing boycotts. And nearly every day, editors at this publication are told to warn their readers against this restaurant or that bar or hotel because of some alleged anti-gay infraction.
Lost in this cacophony is much of the effectiveness of the original boycott, which was initiated against a land agent of an absentee landlord in (where else?) Ireland. Angered by low payments, workers and tradesmen refused to deal with Boycott and he capitulated.
Today, Boycott would probably rate a standard back-and-forth yellathan on the cable news channels and then would quickly be forgotten in the rush to the next news story. With such a rapidly revolving news cycle, boycotts fizzle out scarcely after they began.
In a Big-Corporation World, Lots of Tentacles
There’s a bigger problem these days. One company can have a brand or branch that does something obnoxious to your cause, while another branch is ultra-gay friendly.
Drag queen activist Lady Bunny, for example, was among those calling for a boycott on all things Fox because of Fox News’ alleged anti-gay agenda. But that would mean depriving ratings from such profoundly gay-friendly shows as Glee and The Simpsons. Given the choice between giving up American Idol and taking a political stand, most gay people apparently voted with their feet: the boycott went nowhere.
If it’s any consolation, the right has a way more miserable track record than our side. Social conservatives’ earnest and well-publicized boycott against media giant Disney for its pro-gay policies (among the company’s sins was its tolerance of Gay Days, when Disney went on record over and over again as saying it was not in any associated) was a laughable failure for pro-gay policies.
So can boycotts still be effective in America’s increasingly complex and intertwined corporate culture?
Selisse Berry, founding executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, gave an answer that may stand as definitive, if less than empowering: probably not.
"Generally, while boycotts might energize members of the community who choose to participate, we have not seen those actions result in measurable change within the boycotted companies," she told EDGE. "That could change if the boycott attracted significant negative coverage over a prolonged period of time in major media, but that would be rare in today’s fast paced culture."
Cleve Jones is the founder of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and co-founder of San Francisco AIDS Foundation who worked closely with Milk on the Coors boycott and was highlighted in the film biography of Milk. Jones and Milk formed an alliance with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the giant labor union, which Jones said was critical to the boycott’s success.
Contrary to Berry, Jones said there is a significant amount of evidence that shows boycotts still work. "I think those people ought to review their history," Jones said on those who question the impact of boycotts. "Boycotts have historically been and remain to be a very effective tool -- if they’re done correctly."
How Social Network Dilutes Effective Boycotts
The proliferation of Twitter, Facebook, blogs and the rest of it may have made it easier to call for boycotts. But, in a "the boy that cried ’Wolf!’" scenario, that actually diminishes their effectiveness.
"With the new media, there’s lots of sort of random calls to boycott this, boycott that," he noted. "It comes from the left and the right, but these aren’t organized. But believe me, when you have a well organized boycott that’s backed up by staff and some resources, then they can be extremely effective."
Jones (portrayed by Emile Hirsch in the Oscar-winning film Milk, is an outspoken advocate of the Sleep with the Right People Campaign, a coalition between the LGBT community and Unite Here, a union representing hospitality and manufacturing workers. The coalition has launched numerous protests and boycotts on hotels across the country, including the Manchester Hyatt in San Francisco.
Doug Manchester, owner of the Manchester Hyatt, contributed $125,000 to the Prop 8 initiative in California. Workers at the hotel, many of which are LGBT or immigrants, have "onerous workloads" and receive little in return in pay or benefits, Jones said. The battle against the Manchester Hyatt represents a united front against the discrimination of all Americans, he said, and is reminiscent of Milk’s merger with the Teamsters to boycott Coors.
"I am part of a broad social movement," Jones told EDGE. "I view the fight for LGBT equality in the context of that larger movement. I have little interest that seeks to benefit only the narrow interests of its own members. I think that’s a shallow movement."
Jones added that the Manchester Hyatt Boycott has moved over $7 million in profits out of the hotel proving that boycotts still work.
There are radical differences, however, between the gay rights movement of today and of the days of Milk, Jones said. Founders of gay activism understood that becoming a part of the gay liberation movement most likely meant severing ties with their families, careers, and communities. Their voices were loud and uninhibited because they had "nothing to lose."
But the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s would change the conversation forever. "AIDS changed everything," Jones said. "Just as that movement was beginning to gain a little bit of traction, we got hit with the epidemic. In addition to killing half of the gay men from my generation, it completely transformed the community."